Reports of the Church’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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I spent a lot of time on the road in 2016. Too much time probably, considering that I was out there talking about the virtues of slowing down and staying put.

During one 120-day stretch, I traveled one out of every four days, curating discussions about Slow Church in neighborhoods and churches from suburban Seattle to rural North Carolina. Over four months, I did 22 formal events—and had numerous informal conversations—in ten states, some by myself and some with Chris Smith.

Our consistent message: Don’t be overly enthralled by the fast and the flashy. The kingdom of God is like yeast and the mustard seed. The small stuff matters.

Even the smallest acts of human faithfulness to God’s mission are slowly and patiently being woven into the great biblical drama of the reconciliation of all things.

John Pattison

Faithful presence in place can be difficult, slow, unsexy, and often heartbreaking work—though it could be the most rewarding work of your life as well. It almost certainly won’t put you on the cover of Christianity Today. It can’t be distilled into the “six easy steps to anything.”

But it matters.

Every life you touch, every person you equip to love and serve others—it matters. Some of the change may be invisible to you, but you never know where your influence is going to stop. Even the smallest acts of human faithfulness to God’s mission are slowly and patiently being woven into the great biblical drama of the reconciliation of all things.

Though I talk about this stuff all the time, even I have to be regularly reminded of the truth of it.

In July 2016, I spent several days in Chicago. It was my first time in that great city in a long time. I had rented a car, and so I spent a lot of time driving around, through one neighborhood and another, and out to the wealthy suburb where I was staying with some friends of friends.

What I saw through my windshield was a city deeply segregated. Neighborhoods of enormous monetary wealth next to vast neighborhoods of striking economic poverty—with apparently no mixing of the two. And what I heard on the TV and radio were statistics of a city soaked in blood: 324 murders in the first six months of the year alone.

On my last day in Chicago, I went to a Cubs game with my friend Tim Soerens. Tim is cofounder of the Parish Collective, an organization that connects and supports churches and community practitioners committed to the work of neighborhood renewal. Tim lives in Seattle but he happened to be visiting Chicago the same week as me. By the time we met up at Wrigley, my heart was in despair for the city.

But I was shocked as I listened to Tim describe his own visit to Chicago. Unlike me, Tim had gotten out of his car. He had walked the streets and met pastors and laypeople, people of passion, creativity, and goodwill. In those same segregated neighborhoods that I had grieved over, judged at face value, and nearly written off—all from the safe confines of my rental car—in those same neighborhoods, Tim had heard and seen stories of life and hope. I despaired; Tim was energized. Violence, poverty, and systemic racism are real, obviously, but Tim had seen the Kingdom of God sprouting forth in the granular, in the everyday stuff of life.

A Spiritual Dark Ages?

We’re hearing a lot right now about the so-called death of the American Church.

I’m currently reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (Amazon | IndieBound), which makes the case that we are entering into a spiritual Dark Ages in this country. This book was featured on the cover of Christianity Today, and it has a good chance of being the biggest-selling book on the Church written in our lifetimes. Dreher suggests that what the dwindling number of true Christians need to do is to band together to protect orthodox Christianity from the barbarians at the gates. I’m not exaggerating; this is its central metaphor. I’ve been a Dreher fan for a while, but The Benedict Option is gloomy.

There is an extent to which the Christianity we’ve taken for granted in the United States is fading from view. But that’s not the whole story. Not even close.

I’d like you to imagine something with me.

Picture in your mind’s eye a map of the United States. The map is lit by huge external lights, the flood lamps of cultural and political Christianity. These external lights are the reason the United States has sometimes been mistaken as a “Christian nation.” We recognize this place. It is bright and familiar. For many American Christians—though not all—this spiritual geography is safe and predictable.

Now imagine those flood lamps begin to dim.

The country gets darker. Attendance in many denominations and churches drops. We see the rise of the so-called “nones”—the growing number of people, including many young people, who report on surveys that they have no religious affiliation. Christian culture warriors see themselves beaten back on one cultural battlefield after another. The external lights of mainstream, cultural Christianity grow dimmer and dimmer until, by a particular set of standards, the country as we knew it disappears.

The spiritual landscape once so familiar, predictable, navigable, and, for some, safe, is now plunged into darkness. Let your eyes adjust and you may still see the faint silhouette of the United States…but not much else.

But keep watching. Do you see that? A pinprick of light. It’s not coming from outside the country, but from the inside. In fact, it looks like it might be coming from the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago.

Then you see another pinpoint of light. It’s not large, but it’s steady. It’s coming from the Golden Hill neighborhood of San Diego.

First in ones and twos, and then in fives and sixes, these pinpoints of light appear on our map of the United States. There are two or three in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, one in the Springwater neighborhood in Portland. Small but steady lights appear in Wenatchee, Boone, Johnson City, Appalachian Ohio, and Syracuse, in Silverton, Oregon where I live, and wherever it is that you live. More and more of these pinpricks of light are coming online now—in the tens and twenties or more. They are giving shape and detail to the country, but they are doing it from the inside.

What you’re seeing, of course, is the Church. This isn’t the abstract “Church of Seattle”—these are small, humble, unobtrusive communities of Jesus-followers weaving fabrics of love and care in their particular places, in parishes in cities and suburbs and rural communities.

Some of these neighborhood expressions were already there, but, like the Milky Way, they had been blocked from our view by the background light of cultural and political Christianity.

But there are new things happening too, and what will emerge over time is a constellation (or perhaps a whole galaxy) of God’s Kingdom Come.

From Jesus Moment to Jesus Movement

There are many who are afraid, and who maybe even despair, as attendance drops in churches and denominations throughout Europe and North America. I want to acknowledge the real grief and uncertainty people are experiencing over these shifting demographics.

. . . beyond our rental car windshields, beyond the statistics, in ways perhaps still too subtle to be registered on the “Geiger counters” of popular Christian culture, something is stirring.

John Pattison

There are neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest where less than 1% of the population wants anything to do with Jesus. By and large, these folks aren’t belligerent toward Christ. They’re indifferent. The old church building on the corner will be relevant to their day-to-day lives when it’s eventually converted into a brewery. For now, they assume that what is being preached there on Sundays is irrelevant (if not antagonistic) to their Monday through Saturday life of finding meaningful work, raising a family, nurturing community, cultivating beauty, pursuing justice, and making this world a better place. I understand this impression. In some ways my hopes for Slow Church were borne out of my own dissatisfaction with church experiences that made no connection between what happened for one hour on Sunday morning and what happened in my home and neighborhood the other 167 hours of the week. I wanted a Jesus Movement, not a Jesus Moment.

Even so, I think reports of the death of the American Church have been greatly exaggerated. I feel an incredible sense of hope and excitement. Because beyond our rental car windshields, beyond the statistics, in ways perhaps still too subtle to be registered on the “Geiger counters” of popular Christian culture, something is stirring. I’ve been in over 70 different neighborhoods since Slow Church came out, and I’ve seen it firsthand: God is on the move.

In one faithful encounter after another, the seeds of the gospel are being sown. We don’t know what shape the American Church will take—probably, from our limited perspective, it will take many different shapes, as churches, rooted in their places, embody Christ in ways that can be known by the people in those places.

What I do know is that we are being invited to be God’s diversely gifted co-participants in this future—a future that is as big as the universe and as intimate as our own front yards.

Conversation Starters

  1. What are some signs of hope that you’re seeing in the church and the neighborhood?
  2. What are the “rental car windshields”  in your life that may be obscuring your vision of what God is doing in this time and place? How can you get out of the car–either literally or metaphorically–to see what’s happening in the granular, in the everyday stuff of life?

Go Deeper: I’d love to connect and hear about the work you’re doing in your own neighborhood. You can find me on Facebook and on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to the Slow Church blog. As a way of saying thank you, you’ll also get a free copy of the ebook, Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities.

John Pattison writes and speaks frequently on topics related to the church, the neighborhood, and the creative life. He is the coauthor of Slow Church (2014) and Besides the Bible (2010) and the founder of The Resourceful Community blog. His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in Books & Culture, Relevant, Sojourners, and The Englewood Review of Books, among many other publications. John previously served as Managing Editor of CONSPIRE Magazine and Deputy Editor of the Burnside Writers Collective. He lives with his family in Oregon's Willamette Valley.


6 Comments

  1. David Jansson

    John, thank you for your beautiful and encouraging article.

    You mentioned Dreher and The Benedict Option and I think what he argues for fits in well with your piece. To extend your excellent analogy of dimming floodlights and constellations of individual shining stars (a hopeful, thrilling image), I think Dreher would say that for too long the Church in America has relied upon the floodlights and have not “kept the fire” well in our individual churches, so that we are in the position where our lights are not nearly as bright as we thought and some are in danger of going out. The Benedict Option is a call to churches to urgently and intentionally tend to the home fires so that as the floodlights continue to dim, we are prepared to let our lights shine before others so that they may see life and good works and glorify our Father in heaven. The Benedict Option is not to turn inward so as to hide our light, but to turn inward in order to strengthen it and ultimately light the way.

    As you’ve been reading his book (and for anyone else who has read it), would you agree?

  2. Sallie Borrink

    David –

    I’ve read “The Benedict Option” and I agree with your comment. So many times when I’ve read articles and posts about the book, it seems like people either haven’t read it (and they assume they know what Dreher is going to say) or they read it with a filter on and read all kinds of things into it that aren’t there. I’ve felt at times I didn’t even read the same book some people are critiquing. I read “The Benedict Option” with only a limited knowledge of Dreher and his writings so I didn’t have many expectations. I thought it was a thought-provoking book with a solid premise. I honestly don’t get John’s point here given what Dreher wrote in his book. It seems to me that Dreher and John have the same idea about how the Body of Christ shines a light in a dark world.

  3. C.S.

    ‘I think Dreher would say that for too long the Church in America has relied upon the floodlights and have not “kept the fire” well in our individual churches, so that we are in the position where our lights are not nearly as bright as we thought and some are in danger of going out.’ This is a perfect summary of The Benedict Option. I did not find it to be a discouraging book at all, but invigorating. I’ve already become more active in my own church community as a result of Rod Dreher’s exhortations. And I’m encouraged by John’s words here as well. I think what I’m seeing in my local area, a region of small towns, is a mix of good and bad; while my church is growing, churches in the area are still insular and disconnected from one another and the broader community, and there’s a church down the street that split when the pastor decided to join a denomination — many members left to create yet another non-denominational community church (almost next door to an already existing community church, no less!) Nothing wrong with that in theory… but I think it’s sad to see a congregation split up, and the traditional Presbyterian church they left may now lose their building. Even at my own church we have problems with low commitment, and in my extended family, the faith has not been transmitted to the next generation. So it’s hard to see through that to the sparks of light glowing in the darkness. But it’s encouraging to know that they’re there, and I always think hard times are good for the church; I really do believe the church is at our best as a counter-culture.

  4. John Pattison

    @johnepattison

    David and Sallie,
     
    Thank you so much for engaging with this post. I’m sorry I’m just getting a chance to reply. I’m also sorry that my response is going to be kind of long. Who was it that apologized for not having enough time to write a shorter letter? That’s me with this comment. It’s a ramble, and I’m sorry in advance.
     
    I think you’re both right that there is some overlap between my points and Dreher’s. My Slow Church co-author and I have engaged with The Benedict Option a few times on our blog, and there are a couple more posts to come. The books are in harmony on some points; less so on others.
     
    I think the image I try to present in this post differs from Dreher’s vision in multiple ways. Here are the first several that came to mind.
     
    1. The first difference is one of orientation. Dreher calls on Christians to “strategically withdraw” from society in order to protect and preserve orthodoxy. As David put it above, Dreher wants us to “turn inward.” This isn’t what I’m saying in my post at all. In fact, I think the “turning inward” approach is a mistake. Christians need to always be attentive to the Source but the Gospel is meant to flow. It won’t stay stagnant. It’s going to burst old wineskins. Rather than strategically withdrawing, I think Church should be seeping into the cracks and crevices of society, culture, neighborhoods, individual lives.
     
    2. The second difference is one of scale. I’ve been following Dreher since he wrote Crunchy Cons, a book that called conservatives to focus more on the local, on virtue, on beauty, and on protecting the family. Yet Dreher’s counsel in The Benedict Option ranges from the small and subtle—not relying too much on politics anymore, focusing on our immediate neighbors, reading books instead of watching TV, shopping more at the farmers market, etc.—to the large and abstract: “[It] is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.” How can you tell Christians to focus on loving their neighbors while also telling all Christians everywhere (there is no nuance in his statement) to abandon public schools, where most of the neighbors send their kids? Public schools aren’t an abstraction; they are part of the neighborhood. 
     
    3. The third difference is Dreher’s litmus test for collaboration and community. I understand why Dreher emphasizes orthodoxy—or at least his own definition of orthodoxy—but I don’t agree with (a) the criteria of his litmus test for who is in and who is out, or (b) using a litmus test in the first place. 
     
    In his book, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, the theologian Roger Olsen makes a useful distinction between dogma, doctrine, and opinion. A “dogma” is a truth that is absolutely essential to Christianity; to change or deny a dogma is to put Christianity itself at stake. “Doctrine” is a secondary class of beliefs that are important to a particular tradition. “Opinions” are beliefs without clear consensus. Dreher’s litmus test excludes Christians from orthodoxy based on doctrines and opinions, not just on dogma. Everyone else must be left outside with the barbarian hordes—or left off the ark to perish in the secular flood (another dreary metaphor used by Dreher).
     
    My original blog post was written weeks ago, and I’m an hour or so away from finishing the book. Can you help me remember something: does Dreher ever talk about Christians collaborating with people who aren’t Christians? I genuinely can’t remember. As I look through my notes on the book, and do searches on Google Books and Amazon Preview, it seems like every time he talks about collaboration it refers to collaboration with “like-minded Christians” (page 4). If this is the case, it is a massive difference between Dreher’s vision and what I’m talking about.
     
    4. The fourth difference is one of language. Dreher uses metaphors of exile, cataclysm, and the military. Government, culture, and the rest of society was ground to be won for Christ. We suffered some setbacks so now have to make a strategic retreat, set up networks of resistance, and wait out the occupation. This isn’t hyperbole but Dreher’s own language. I think all of these metaphors are counter-productive. 
     
    I also think that talk about withdrawal and separation simply isn’t useful right now. A lot of the American Church has been “separate” from the day-to-day life of the neighborhood for a long time, separate from our role as stewards of creation, etc. Instead we’ve emphasized individual salvation (understandably), closed church communities, and the culture wars. Dreher would agree that we’ve spent too much on the culture wars—though maybe only because he thinks we’ve lost. But I believe emphasizing “separation” is the wrong approach to begin with, when what we should be emphasizing is a theology and spirituality of interconnectedness and relationship.
     
    5. The final difference is one of fearfulness. Dreher swings wildly between fear and excitement, from anxiety to hopefulness. This is something thoughtful critics like James K.A. Smith have pointed out as well, so I won’t go too much into here.
     
    Despite these differences, and the ones I didn’t mention, I think The Benedict Option is a must-read for American Christians. Dreher has helped inaugurate a much-needed conversation about the role of the Church in a post-Christian culture. I know I had a lively conversation with Dreher in the margins of my own copy of the book. And while this long comment focuses more on my disagreements with Dreier, there are many similarities too. I hope eventually to write a long review of the book that incorporates both sides. 
     
    I’m grateful to Dreher for writing The Benedict Option, and grateful for the two of you for engaging so thoughtfully in the conversation.  

  5. Natasha Metzler

    I am currently working on a manuscript about being a hometown missionary, and this post is exactly the heart I desire to display. God is moving, the church is alive, and light will always overcome darkness. I appreciate this reminder and encouragement.

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